THE most confounding finding from the provisionally released statistics from the latest census is that Pakistan’s population is still only 36 per cent urban, with so-called rural areas having a share of 64pc. For social scientists and for people who are familiar with Pakistan’s economy and demography, and for even those who travel across much of Pakistan, these figures reveal serious methodological issues in how concepts such as ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ are devised. Numerous sets of economic and social statistics not related to the population count, suggest how contentious, and incorrect this urban/rural dichotomy really is.

The definitions, which are usually used to define ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ when a census is conducted, are based on administrative criteria. Administrative boundaries defining what a city or town is, which are infrequently revised, are based on the number of people residing in the limits of municipal, town committees, and such other classifications. Hence, the population of say, Karachi, would include those people who live in the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation area, but exclude the hundreds of thousands who live just a few feet outside this arbitrary boundary, and yet carry out all their economic and social activities within Karachi.

Such administrative criteria delineating what a city is might make sense when it comes to municipal budgets and the provision of services, or who can vote in the KMC elections, but are not adequately cognisant of who an urban citizen is. Administrative boundaries exclude urban forms, practices and citizenry, since cities have expanded well beyond city limits.

While it is easier to define ‘urban’, albeit incorrectly, since all this definition requires is an administrative order, what rural is, is actually more complicated. One reason why the recent census shows Pakistan’s population as 64pc rural is that anyone who does not live within urban boundaries is designated as a ‘rural’ dweller, a residual category. Hence, areas which social scientists and urban planners would call peri-urban, those huge fringes of city-size settlements that are formally located outside the boundaries of cities, would be called ‘rural’, although they are as urbanised as the rest of the city from which they are being excluded.

It is clear that the classification used in our census for ‘rural’ is wrong.

Traditionally, the notion of ‘rural’ is often associated with a mode of production and exchange which is supposed to be based on some form of agriculture. If one looks at other sets of statistics related to economic activity, it becomes clear that the classification used in our census for ‘rural’ is wrong. For example, agriculture now only contributes one-fifth to Pakistan’s GDP.

Furthermore, much of the so-called rural areas now constitute a large, if not dominant, share of non-agricultural employment. Activities classified as ‘non-farm’ or ‘non-agricultural’ incomes, mainly services, constitute at least 60pc of total rural incomes, if we are to follow the definitions used for rural areas according to the Population and Housing Census of 2017. In other words, there is little agricultural activity taking place in rural areas.

Moreover, services which were considered ‘urban’ some decades ago, such as electricity, education, access to television, communication and transport are now also very visible in so-called rural areas. The fact that one million mobile phones are added on each month in Pakistan, with nearly 75pc of Pakistanis having mobile phones, shows that even in remote and rural areas, such technology and means of communication are easily available. Whether urban or rural, Pakistan is heavily integrated.

The meticulous research of Reza Ali, an urban planner from Lahore, who has looked at urban settlements in Pakistan for over four decades, shows how unproductive and incorrect our definitions of urban and rural areas are. He shows that the difference between urban/rural is largely a matter of definition, and many ad-hoc definitions are used which are often inconsistent, non-comparable and incomplete. He suggests that we begin to look at the urban/rural divide as a gradient rather than a dichotomy.

Other scholars, notably, Prof Muhammad Qadeer, have argued that we now have ‘ribbons of development’ between cities, towns, industrial satellites and along highways, and even populations which have not formally and physically relocated to cities have adopted ‘urbanism as a way of life’ reflected in changing patterns of production, consumption and the use of services. Such critical reassessments of dichotomies like urban and rural, need to be further understood by planners and researchers, alike.

It is important to emphasise here, that no argument is being made that ‘all of Pakistan is urban’. Far from it. But what is being suggested is that one needs to have very different criteria in the census to be able to plan and provide services, if that is one of the main arguments given for undertaking censuses. Perhaps one needs to look at densities of populations, rather than artificial administrative categories.

Economic activities might offer another way of classifying populations. Access to services within cities by people living outside administrative boundaries constitutes yet another way of looking at populations. For example, areas with ease of access or within commuting radius of a city ought not to be considered ‘rural’, even if they are producing agricultural and dairy products which are meant primarily for residents in cities. With so much connectivity and integration of services, trade and even manufacturing, a hard divide between urban and rural becomes less tenuous.

Perhaps more categories of settlements, as suggested by Reza Ali, need to be considered, such as those which are unambiguously urban, those which are peri-urban and integrated with cities, those which are in a speedy process of urbanising (as is much of rural Pakistan), and those by some residual criteria which could still be considered ‘rural’. One can only hope that once all the results of the 2017 census are made available to researchers, we will begin to critically rethink urban and rural.

The writer is a Karachi-based political economist.

Published in Dawn, August 29th, 2017

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